University of Innsbruck

Überblick

Newcomers in high mountain areas of the Austrian Alps

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From the end of the 19th century onwards, high mountain regions of the Alps in particular experienced on-going changes. Abundant examples are provided by the out-migration of autochthonous people, the decreasing number of mountain farmers and, as a result, the abandonment of agricultural building stock (Pic. 1).

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Pic. 1: Abandoned farm building in the Central Austrian Alps (Source and by courtesy of: Judith Brenneis 2019)

Taking this structural changes into account, the question arises as to which actors will take care of the Alpine natural and cultural landscape in the future. This concerns the population, the mountain farming culture as well as its settlement structure and management techniques in particular (Pic. 2).

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Pic. 2: Alpine pasture and their building stock in the Northern Limestone Alps of Austria as an example of the mountain farming culture shaping the Alpine cultural landscape (Source: Konzett 2020)

However, over the past few decades demographic research has revealed significant turnarounds according to these trends in the Western Alps; particularly in the French, Swiss, Italian and Slovenian Alpine space. This project sets the focus on the eastern part of the Alps and thus especially on high mountain regions of Austria and the neighbouring area. There is a large quantity of people and cultivated lands affected by the changes mentioned above, thus, the impact of newcomers could be very significant.

Theoretical framework

Studies of the recent past have demonstrated a new form of in-migration in peripheral regions of the Alps. This usually includes urban dwellers, namely new highlanders, who deliberately choose to live in the countryside in order to fulfil a personal desire for a rural idyllic world, an alpine lifestyle and, furthermore, a higher quality of life. This population movement demonstrates a strong urban-to-rural gradient generated by natural and cultural amenities (Pic. 3) and can thus be assigned to the concept of amenity migration.

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Pic. 3: The natural amenities of Alpine communities - as shown by the example of the Tyrolean Gail Valley - are significant driver for the in-migration of new highlanders (Source and by courtesy of: Anni Bodner 2007)

In accordance with this postulate, the most recent studies from non-Alpine, rural regions of Europe verify the existence of new farmers. In a more all-encompassing definition, these newcomers are keen on working in agriculture even though they have had no prior experience in the field. This spatial form of lifestyle can be attributed to the theoretical framework of lifestyle farming.

Objectives and hypotheses

This project focuses on the Austrian Alps, since these are clearly distinct from the other Alpine countries in terms of population and agricultural land. Especially in high mountain regions of Austria, a large quantity of people and cultivated lands are affected by the trends referred to at the outset (Fig. 1).

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Fig 1: Changes in the number of farms and population in the Alps (1980- 2010) (Source: Eurac Research, Institute for Regional Development; Ravazzoli E. 2017)

Thus, the impact of newcomers could be very significant or even have opposite effects. Consequently, it ought to be a main objective to analyse the trends of amenity migration and lifestyle farming in the Austrian Alps. More precisely, the associated in-migration of new highlanders/new farmers needs to be demonstrated, their migration motives recorded, and their spatial and socio-economic impacts examined. The research data obtained will be used to develop a theoretical concept for the application in demographic, agricultural, ecological, natural hazard and regional development research as well as regional policy.

Innovation – research off the beaten track

It is not the aim of the project to deal with the persistent population drain, particularly of mountain farmers in high mountain areas. Rather, the idea is to change the vantage point: reversing the lens and focusing on those who move upstream and thus influence the demographic and agricultural framework as well as the cultural landscape of Austria’s high mountain regions in many ways (Pic. 4 & 5). This is very important to reduce the risk of natural hazards, which will occur more frequently in these regions in the future due to climate change.

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Pic. 4: Mountain farm building in the Tyrolean Gail Valley revitalised by new highlanders (Source: Grüner 2016)
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Pic. 5: Original “Montafoner Stube” revitalised by new highlanders (Source: Konzett 2015)

Methods

To verify the hypotheses outlined above, a mixed-methods approach is used. In order to provide a brief overview: The numbers of new highlanders and especially new farmers are determined via quantitative analyses, among other things; whereas their migration motives are analysed predominantly qualitatively. As regards the latter, field trips – using adequate data acquisition techniques – to affected communities are essential. On the one hand, this makes it possible to investigate the degree to which they are socially anchored to the local community; on the other hand, it is the most sensible way to record overall impact on the cultural landscape.

Taskforce:

Demographic Change in the Alps / Ethnic Minorities and Refugees

Project members:

Project leader: Dr. Ernst Steinicke

PhD candidates: Mag.a Savina Konzett, Mag. Bernhard Grüner

Funding:

This project (No. P 32956) is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

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